Racism on post-secondary campuses: where are we now?

“Teachers don’t leave society at the door when they enter into classrooms and neither do the students,” says Alex Da Costa, a professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta.

“If in general racism and racial inequalities shape the society more broadly, there’s no way they won’t infiltrate into classroom spaces, into the texts that are used, into the nature of what becomes part of the curriculum.”

Da Costa, who is originally from the United States with family roots in Brazil, has written extensively about the contemporary politics of race in the Americas. He’s the author of Reimagining Black Difference and Politics in Brazil: From Racial Democracy to Multiculturalism and is teaching a graduate course in the Faculty of Education this fall exploring race and racism in the context of education.

We spoke with him about the course and about recent racially charged incidents on North American university campuses.

Faculty of Education: You’re currently teaching a course titled “Race, Racialization and Education.” Why is it important for educators to explore these complex issues as part of their practice?

Alex Da Costa: Given that racism and racialization, along with colonialism, have been formative of societies in the Americas and globally, it is fundamental for educators to understand both theoretically and practically the ways race has been constructed over time and the uses of racial hierarchies and power to control, manage and govern populations.

Also, Edmonton and Alberta are becoming more diverse, while the issue of Truth and Reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canada are increasingly being discussed and implementations in the sphere of education designed. As educators, we along with our students must be prepared to address these processes in the most critical, transformative way possible. We must also make sure educators can assess the possibilities and pitfalls that exist with certain policies that focus on racism, multiculturalism and settler colonialism.

Faculty of Education: Issues of race and racism are very prevalent in mainstream discourse these days. At the same time, many people are afraid to talk about race in an educational context in North America because conversations can become so contentious. Does it take courage to wade into these thorny issues in a post-secondary classroom? Do you feel any trepidation about it?

ADC: I don’t know if it takes courage. As in, I don’t know how or what I would teach if I did not teach about these very significant topics. In fact, we must be teaching about these topics given the persistence of racism and ongoing colonialism in our society. I see it as our job.

I have so far found the majority of students in my graduate and undergraduate courses receptive to these conversations. In fact, at both levels they tell me that they would like to see more of this type of content in the higher ed curriculum.

But I know such receptivity is not always the case, especially for Indigenous faculty, faculty of colour and women faculty who cover these issues. As a white, Latinx, straight, cisgendered male I'm much less likely to feel or experience aggressive backlash or challenges to my knowledge, such as accusations of bias, for example. It’s important to note that backlashes to this subject matter express the anxieties of those heavily invested in the privileges they have and that they have normalized, when knowledge in the classroom and education more generally tackle issues of oppression. Such backlashes, intentionally or not, attempt to reclaim the stability, comfort and power that structural privilege—white supremacy—provides.

Alex Da Costa in SUB Building
Da Costa describes Edmonton’s #MakeItAwkward campaign as “an excellent way to point out everyday racism and to get people to name and challenge it … [However] Centuries of racialized structures need more than awkwardness to dismantle them and to elicit action by those who invest and benefit from the way the current system works.”

Faculty of Education: We’ve seen several stories in the news recently about racially charged posters, graffiti and other material being found on U.S. and Canadian campuses, including our own. What do you think this says about issues of race and racism on campuses, which are traditionally seen as havens for progressive thinking, diversity and inclusivity? Do you think campus culture is becoming less tolerant?

ADC: Issues of race and racism are always present on campuses as they are in wider society. The perception that campuses are havens of progressive thought is true in some sense—we have relative freedom as professors, students and staff to share ideas and teach about subjects that seek learning, conversation on difficult topics, and—in some cases—social transformation.

However, students of colour, faculty of colour, Indigenous students and faculty, as well as LGBTQ and differently abled students and faculty, have had to deal with university life as a space of constant difficulty, struggle and exposure to ignorance from their white, straight, male—and sometimes female—student peers and faculty in relation to what it means to experience racism or other forms of discrimination.

In terms of increasing or decreasing tolerance on campuses, I can say that these types of incidents have existed for a while. I started university in the U.S. 20 years ago and, as students, we dealt with racist posters, articles in conservative publications and other provocations targeting blacks, Native Americans, Latinxs, Muslims and occasionally Asians.

Racism and explicit assertions of white supremacy come to the surface depending on a variety of factors like economic and political climate, the discourse and policies of ruling political parties at the local, provincial and federal level. So it would be hard to say with certainty whether there is an upward trend in these incidents.

Faculty of Education: Looking at the postering incidents that happened earlier this fall at the University of Alberta and at University of Calgary, do you feel encouraged by the community response, which was overwhelmingly one of condemnation of the posters and support for Sikh and Muslim communities? Is campus culture moving in the right direction when it comes to issues of race and racism?

ADC: I think a swift and strong response from campus leadership, students and others in the community reflects positively on the community in relation to the incidents here at the U of A. The community has shown a lot of solidarity and support and has been aggressive about asserting that this has no place here.

However, there were a few problems with the institutional response by administration and student organizations, where the impulse was to come together and affirm that the racist incident regarding the poster targeting Sikhs was out of the ordinary. Let me elaborate.

First, there is a description, and perhaps attempted understanding, of this incident as an anomaly reflected in statements such as “This is not the University of Alberta that we know.” While these incidents may be rare, such a statement can mask more institutionalized and everyday forms of racism that are normalized or where opposition is silenced. In other words, by constructing something as “out of the ordinary,” we mask the ordinariness of racism in our society.

So while people might not be subject to verbal taunts or racist posters daily, other forms of racism are present that make being in this institution more difficult, and sometimes extremely alienating and hard, for some.

Second, I have a lot of respect for how the #MakeItAwkward campaign on social media has sparked a discussion on race. This is an excellent way to point out everyday racism and to get people to name and challenge it by doing something to confront it. This is important because it is not only action but also inaction that allows racism to continue in our society. However, while making it awkward may work as a tactic in certain situations, how does one make issues like racist police violence or missing and murdered Indigenous women awkward? Centuries of racialized structures need more than awkwardness to dismantle them and to elicit action by those who invest and benefit from the way the current system works.

So as we move people to action by “making it awkward,” we have to continue to push further in how we understand and address racism and white supremacy in its diverse expressions. I believe many using the hashtag would agree that it is a useful tool, but one among many.

Faculty of Education: Do you think these incidents are happening more frequently, or is it that we’re more aware and sensitive to instances of racism nowadays—more likely to report, speak out and also share via social media?

ADC: Social media has provided a powerful platform to expose daily incidences of racism and to share things that are happening across wide and varying geographies and social spaces.

Social media has been essential at a time when corporate and mainstream media fail the population in terms of covering the significant issues of our time and in terms of providing a space and visibility for marginalized and oppressed populations to speak and share their experiences. Social media has been essential to political organizing, and should be seen as a complement to, rather than replacement for, coming together to take action when needed through social protest, direct action and struggle in and with oppressed communities.

Feature image:“Issues of race and racism are always present on campuses as they are in wider society,” says Faculty of Education professor Alex Da Costa, seen here outside the Students’ Union Building on North Campus.